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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death (edition 2010)

by Nnedi Okorafor

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7354612,706 (3.8)126
Title:Who Fears Death
Authors:Nnedi Okorafor
Info:Daw Books (2010), Hardcover, 304 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

Work details

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

  1. 30
    Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (PhoenixFalls)
  2. 31
    The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (electronicmemory)
    electronicmemory: Who Fears Death is post-apocalyptic futuristic fantasy and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms draws from classical sword and sorcery, but both are excellent novels about heroines who have found themselves beset and gifted (or possibly cursed) by powers beyond reckoning, while caught up in a political and supernatural power struggle that spans generations and eventually time itself.… (more)
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    The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor (sturlington)

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» See also 126 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
Who Fears Death is a sci-fi/fantasy novel and tells the story of Onyesonwu, a girl in post-apocalyptic Sudan. She is the child of rape, her mother being a member of a persecuted ethnic group, her father a member of the oppressive ethnic group. Because of this, she is always somewhat of an outcast, but as she grows up she begins to learn she has magical powers and a special destiny. She becomes a trained sorceress and works to overthrow her father and the oppressive regime he represents.

I really wanted to like this book. It felt fresh and different and feminist, and I tried really hard to get into it. I just couldn't really do it. The book deals with a lot of really heavy issues, many of which are very graphically described. Female genital mutilation, genocide, and rape as a weapon of genocide all play prominent roles in the novel. These issues are all relevant to recent conflicts in Sudan, and I was really intrigued to see how the author would weave them into a post-apocalyptic Sudan full of magic and sorcery and how it could be a commentary on current/recent events. I never really felt like a satisfying connection was made. Also, the society in the novel was very much shaped by the people's belief in the stories and teachings of "The Great Book," and I waiting for a more clear commentary on religious fundamentalism and the power of stories and religion to shape people's attitudes. While this was obviously a theme, it didn't play out as strongly as I was hoping.

This is not a genre that appeals to me in general, so I think I was mostly just turned off by all the magic and shape-shifting and mysticism. ( )
  klburnside | Sep 9, 2016 |
If you think Katniss Everdene is kickass wait until you meet Onyesonwu.

Part dystopian fantasy, part traditional folk tale, Nnedi Okorafor's tale of inter-tribal violence, rape and female castration is unshirking in its telling.

The book is a quest to put right ancient wrongs, to make reparation, to rewrite a twisted culture's holy book. Onyesonwu is both sorceress and teenager, a woman of incredible power who has to learn how to control that power. The book is about love, about being seen and accepted by those who love you and how that can empower a person to become who they are meant to be. Rooted as it is in African traditions, the magic and fantasy is far more interesting than the swords and sorcery of Western literature. Onyesonwu is a deliciously feisty character as well. You should read it. ( )
  missizicks | Aug 22, 2016 |
This was a pretty difficult review to write. I still feel like there is a lot I haven't unpacked from this story. I may come back and revise it. Also, there are plenty of unmarked spoilers.

Onyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother's and father's people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain--some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu's mother's people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race--perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?--and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu's mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father's attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone--rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu's story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero's journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn't show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu's anger--women's anger--often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world--except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding. ( )
  sturlington | Mar 20, 2016 |
Onyesonwu is the outcast child of a mother who cannot speak above a whisper. Her skin and hair clearly mark her as Ewu, a child of both Nuru and Okeke, a combination despised by Nuru and Okeke alike. Her gender makes the only sorcerer in the village unwilling to teach her. And her shapeshifting and nigh-uncontrollable magic make her neighbors fear and hate her. After her father dies and her magical powers manifest themselves at his funeral, she flees into the desert to avoid mob violence and to seek her nemesis: the man who raped her mother, sired her, and has been trying to kill her ever since. She is accompanied on her quest by four friends, her true love, and a herd of free-spirited camels.

This is an ambitious but frustrating work. Ambitious because it tackles head-on issues of rape, child abuse, child soldiers, female genital cutting, adolescent sexuality, genocide...Okorafor never flinches. But frustrating because the main character is pretty unlikable, the plot is your classic bildungsroman, and the pacing is terrible. Onye has a wide, bewildering array of magic powers that she seems to forget about just when the plot requires her to. After three hundred pages of exhaustively described meals and screamed dialog, she solves genocide in the last, like, two pages? And then there are something like three epilogues? It's not great.

Spoilers from here on out: Onyesonwu is not a particularly moral person. She forces entire towns (children included) to relive her mother's rape. She strikes another town (again, children included) blind. She explodes an entire, occupied building. She kills every fertile man, and forces every fertile woman to be pregnant (with what, I'm not sure). When her best friends come to her for help, she turns into a vulture and flies away, rages at them, or dismisses them. Once in a while, she'll actually have a conversation with one of her supposed bffs, but mostly she's either screaming at them or deriding them in her head. I'm not sure how much we're supposed to agree with Onyesonwu. She does terrible, awful things to unnamed villagers, but then lauds herself for not killing her bio-father (the architect of all the attempted genocide of the Okeke). And all the elderly sorcerers are like, "wow, well done, you're so awesome." What?

And I have no clue what actually happens at the end. Onye rewrites the Great Book, which will apparently stop Nuru/Okeke violence somehow, then gets captured and executed (as was prophesied). The person she was narrating this to even digs up her corpse and re-buries her in the desert. But then two epilogues later it turns out she turned into a Kponyungo, killed her guards, was never executed, and in fact flew away to the Great Greeny Jungle? And then the epilogue says all the Nuru waiting to execute Onye are still waiting for her so they can execute her? Even though they already did? Argh, it makes my head hurt. To me, it doesn't seem clever, it seems sloppy. If she never died, then where did her corpse come from?

Plus, I don't get how her re-write of the Great Book changed anything. So she killed all the fertile men, made all the fertile pregnant, and gave all women magical powers. Great. What on earth is that supposed to do? How would that possibly stop the war between Nuru and Okeke? The book spends so much time talking about who each of her friends is sleeping with that the end of genocidal hatred comes in about three sentences. It's just jammed into the end, as though the author suddenly realized she needed to wrap it up.

I'm disappointed, because I expected to really like this book. As it is, it's so flawed (in my eyes) that I'm giving it 3 stars only out of respect for the breadth and depth of issues and world-building Okorafor attempts here, and not for any engaging writing or story. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Nnedi Okorafor is known as a YA author, but this is her first adult novel. And it’s very adult, with some difficult scenes of rape and violence.

This is not my typical fare, but I’m glad to have read it. It’s a mixed bag genre-wise, being a fantasy set in post-apocalyptic Africa. There’s a bit of science fiction here, but it’s not well developed and not important to the plot, which is driven by the magical education of Onyesonwu, a “chosen one” character picked to stop genocide.

Of particular interest to me were the feminist and African cultural elements. I have no idea how the magic ties into African myth and tradition, but I’m guessing that it does. It was certainly rich and, in the end, rewarding. ( )
  ScottDDanielson | Feb 28, 2016 |
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"Dear friends, are you afraid of death?" - Patrice Lumumba, first and only elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo
To my amazing father, Dr. Godwin Sunday Daniel Okoroafor, M.D., F.A.C.S. (1940-2004).
First words
My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart, yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? It's true that nothing could take him from his work, his art. He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can't be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.
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Well-known for young adult novels (The Shadow Speaks; Zahrah the Windseeker), Okorafor sets this emotionally fraught tale in postapocalyptic Saharan Africa. The young sorceress Onyesonwu—whose name means Who fears death?—was born Ewu, bearing a mixture of her mother's features and those of the man who raped her mother and left her for dead in the desert. As Onyesonwu grows into her powers, it becomes clear that her fate is mingled with the fate of her people, the oppressed Okeke, and that to achieve her destiny, she must die. Okorafor examines a host of evils in her chillingly realistic tale—gender and racial inequality share top billing, along with female genital mutilation and complacency in the face of destructive tradition—and winds these disparate concepts together into a fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling.
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Born into post-apocalyptic Africa to a mother who was raped after the slaughter of her entire tribe, Onyesonwu is tutored by a shaman and discovers that her magical destiny is to end the genocide of her people.

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